Designing Pedagogy in the Reality of Learner Diversity

College classroom activity

Demographics are changing and diversity is increasing across the United States. Teaching itself can be  a significant challenge, but taking into consideration learning styles, learning disabilities, language acquisition needs, different levels of study skills, and even hearing impairment is what many professors at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York do every day. RIT has a large population of hearing impaired students and is known for preparing them well for the workforce. We had the opportunity to interview one of their professors, Dr. Sandra Connelly, who teaches General Biology, about how she designs her courses taking into consideration the high diversity of academic preparedness and skills.

1. How do you approach developing your pedagogy when taking into consideration the many learning disadvantages your students encounter?

When developing anything new for a course, I allow my imagination to “go wild”!, but the first question is always – What is the goal? What do I want them to remember, take away, or apply in a new way? With those answers in mind, I can begin to tailor a lecture or activity that I can use in class. Once I have an idea, I only then begin to consider any limitations of implementation.

If I want to show a video – is it closed captioned, a clear color scheme, and accessible to my entire audience? If I want to do an interrupted case study where the students are going to have to work, then listen, and then work again – how will I shift the focus of the students from their group to me and then back to their group again? For many students the “back and forth” is very disruptive – how can I make it useful and not a hindrance?

I start any activity with the goal of the activity – what is the take home message? Many of my activities use a worksheet to help mediate activity transitions, interactions with their group vs. the entire class, and to keep the students on task. The students also know what I feel are the important points from the exercise – this limits the “Why do we have to do this?” and the “Will this be on the test?”. The answers to the previous questions are, of course, “Because I think it is important” and “Of course”!

2. How do you help students overcome their disadvantages and engage with the course material/content?

I provide my course materials in as many media forms as possible – lecture notes, PowerPoints, video lectures, engaging homework, and discussion boards. The “mixed media” approach to any class allows students to pick and choose what works for them. I also remind the students that if they choose one media type for an exam and were less than thrilled with the results of their exam, they should rethink their chosen media type before the next exam!

This mixed media approach has had a very positive impact on my class structure and my students. It is especially important for students who are struggling – allowing them to find ways to catch up in a way that best suits them. None of my students are limited by the standard course structure of the “one and done lecture”. We all have “bad” days – can you think of ways that you can help your students be prepared for and recover from those bad listening, bad reading, bad note taking, bad paying attention, bad fidgeting too much, and generally day dreaming days!?!? Build a pedagogy arsenal against “bad” days!

3. Planning and designing your course is one thing, but how do you manage your class once it is underway? How do you assess student progress and adjust your teaching, assignments, or class discussions?

Students in my courses are assigned online homeworks and quizzes that are due every week – on the same days every week. Structure is critical for the students. It also allows me to keep tabs on the classes’ progress and determine if there are things that I need to cover in class or review sessions from those assessments.

A more significant influence on my “mid stream adjustments” this year has been my addition of a single question to every class – “What is the single most confusing / unclear concept that we covered today?”. This question is sometimes on a discussion board, but other times it is answered in class on notecards. This allows me go through quickly and see if many students are stuck on one concept, if there are general misconceptions, or if we are all basically on the same page. It also makes the students stop and think about what they don’t know – a critical step in learning that is often ignored.

4. What are some of the biggest lessons or insights you have learned the past few years as you have tried to improve your course structure and student outcomes?

You must be willing to abandon ship in the middle of the ocean – with or without a lifeboat! If things are not going as you had envisioned – or if the students are miserable – you must change direction. If you don’t, poor course evaluations are the least of your worries – losing the respect and attention of the students in the middle of a semester is an immediate torpedo! You will find yourself struggling daily to keep their focus and to keep pushing them forward. This is not something that anyone can deal with readily!

I do in class paper evaluations three times a semester (every 5 weeks) with open-ended questions: 1. What is your favorite thing about class? 2. What is your least favorite thing about class? And 3. How would you fix your “least favorite thing” if you were me? This puts course structure – and success! – squarely into the laps of the students! This generally means that you, as an instructor, must KNOW the materials inside and out so that you can teach the same materials in a different manner, if it is so suggested by the class. This may work less well in a course that you have never taught before – but that also might be the best reason to do it!! Put some of your course design woes on your students – you never know when they are going to teach you something about pedagogy!

5. What are the most important skills you want your students to learn in your class?

How to think and apply — not just memorize, regurgitate and purge. If they can apply something that I explored with them in another class, in a doctor’s appointment, or at a family dinner – then I have done my job, and so have they!

6. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Every class is different – not just every student. An activity or lecture that is awesome one year might be a giant bomb the next year! Don’t give up hope! Just step back, assess, and give it another go!

Never underestimate the desire that your students have for you to succeed. This might seem backwards – but they don’t want to take a class that is terrible and that they dread going to – and they certainly are not going to recommend that kind of course to their friends! They want your course to be good! If they hate the class, and you gave them options to change it – the blame falls back on them! Making them part of the pedagogy process means that everyone finishes happy – and a winner! And, they know that you care enough about their learning to make those adjustments as needed. This kind of compassion about your course will get noticed and will go a long way!

To learn more about Professor Connelly and how she has redesigned her courses with MasteringBiology read the full case study.


Sandra Connelly

Sandra J Connelly, PhD

Dr. Sandra J. Connelly joined RIT as a lecturer in 2007 and became an assistant professor in 2009.  She earned her BS in biology/forensic science at Juniata College, MS in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Buffalo, and Ph.D. in zoology from Miami University of Ohio.

Every semester Connelly teaches foundational biology lectures in the traditional, flipped, and onlin formats, engaging up to 450 students with diverse interests from all colleges at RIT, freshmen through seniors. Bringing her research into the classroom, Connelly also offers a course entitled “€œMolecular Ecology”, co-instructed with Dr. Andre’ Hudson, and she teaches “Evolutionary Biology” with the core evolution team. She is designing a course entitled “€œForensic Ecology” with Criminal Justice faculty for students interested in applying their knowledge of criminology and environment to a €œreal-world€ scenario that will be offered in the coming semesters.